When the virile young Nero first spots the exquisite Acte, illegitimate daughter of Emperor Claudius and a royal household slave, he knows he must have her. But even as Acte finds her deepest desires awakened by the magnificent Nero, she fears his sadistic nature.
Though she has been fated to serve as Nero’s carnal playmate when he becomes emperor of Rome, Acte finds the true love she dreams of in Sergio, a handsome gladiator. But in a loveless world where lust and power rule side by side, her secret obsession with Sergio might cost Acte her heart—and both of their lives.
“One of the finest and most gifted writers. A master storyteller!” —Romantic Times
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A comet lashed its fiery tail across Jupiter's heavens that soft spring night, showering the Empire with omens of good or evil, depending on the state of mind of its witnesses. Some saw it as a promise of love — others felt it foretold certain death and destruction.
Acte's great, dark eyes followed the progress of the longhaired star, her heart brimming with love. With her bare arms held out in supplication to the illumined sky, she whispered, "Send him to me. I await his coming, whoever he may be. For, surely, you announce the arrival of the man who will win my heart."
Still gazing at this heavenly splendor, doubled by its reflection in the Bay of Baiae, Acte thought back to the events of the afternoon.
The henna-haired woman and the two girls — one as colorless as the snow on the slopes of the Apennines, the other as dark and mysterious as the cave of the Sibyl where they now gathered — had reached their destination.
Arriving at the cave opening after negotiating the lightless, airless stairway carved in ancient days through the tufa rock hill of Cumae, they stopped, not daring to cross the forbidden portal into the abode of the sacred Sibyl. After long minutes, glowing eyes appeared in the darkness before them.
She spoke in a voice cracked with age. "So, the emperor's wife, Messalina, has come to Sibyl! I have been expecting you. What are my words of wisdom worth to such a lofty personage?"
Messalina cast a handful of gold coins into the cave, and the hollow voice came again from within.
"The husband of Messalina will die within the year, leaving her alone to fend for herself and against herself. She is her own worst enemy."
The empress and the two girls gasped at the dire prediction.
The voice continued. 'Tears! I see tears. Far into the future my eyes behold the Temple of Vesta shining in bright light, but tears glow like pearls upon the altar stones. And again, tears on the face of Octavia beneath the orange veil. A weeping bride — an evil omen! But wait! I see hope for one among you. Soon there will come to the emperor's villa a young nobleman whom many will love and fear. He comes to cover the dark face of Acte with a veil of love and trust. Her heart will know freedom at last, even as it becomes a prisoner of love. Give yourself to this great one, Acte, and know your destiny fulfilled."
Octavia, the pale daughter of the emperor, glared accusingly at her slave, Acte. Acte lowered her head, afraid to meet the gaze of her young mistress.
Messalina broke the silence with her harsh tongue. "I did not bring gold to hear of the good fortunes of a slave! What news have you of the one I love?" A taunting laugh. "Which one of your loves? But never mind. Their lives will all be tainted by your love as the worm which dares invade the sacred pomegranate." The voice grew thin and trailed away as the trance came to an end. "One year, Messalina, one year — one year."
The Empress Messalina grasped the two girls and held them to her shivering body. Then pushing them toward the dark stairway, she cried, "We should not have come to this place! It is better not to know of the future. Besides, the old woman makes no sense. I cannot divine any meaning in her ramblings."
As the three were driven back to the villa of the Emperor Claudius in Baiae, Messalina twisted a scarf in her nervous hands.
Octavia, paler than usual, cast her eyes down as tears streaked her cheeks. At last she whispered, "Mother, I'm afraid!" Messalina put her arm about her daughter's shoulders.
"So am I, my little one. But we must forget the old woman's silly chatter."
Acte remembered that only she had been promised true love by the Sibyl. She, a mere slave girl, would love a man of noble birth. Her pity went out silently to the tearful mother and daughter with her.
Her Greek eyes had seen all and understood. The Sibyl had said she would wear a veil of love and trust. Soon — soon she would meet him, the one who would free her with his love.
As she gazed out into the spring night over the greening gardens, she saw the rebirth from winter as a renewal of herself as well. The comet, now fading to the north, gave further proof to the words of the Sibyl. Love would come soon. She had to believe; she did believe!
A scream interrupted Acte's reverie. She hurried on bare feet across the cool marble corridor separating her chamber from that of the Lady Octavia. The emperor's daughter, too, had seen the comet. Now Acte must quiet her mistress's fears.
The sweet scent of wild lupine softened the lingering evening as Acte's comet hissed north to flare its glory and its warning on the seven hills of Rome.
A gross figure settled on his couch, clasping bejeweled fingers over his goldclad paunch, satisfied with his meal, his riches, his life.
His small eyes seemed no more than pockmarks in his bloated face as he surveyed his dining chamber, taking special pride in the mosaic murals depicting the idyllic beauties of the countryside — a garden where a water sprite played in a bubbling fountain; a group of naked bathers, their beautiful bodies glistening; a pair of fashionably dressed lovers in a park.
Behind him a woman gowned in flowing blue and gold moved and spoke.
"Some wine to settle your meal, my husband?" He belched his approval of the roast duckling, stuffed mushrooms, and unborn squid sauteed in garlic butter as he accepted the offered glass.
With an effort he propped himself on one elbow and raised his goblet in salute.
"A toast, my dear. To the daughter of Germanicus, the great-granddaughter of the Divine Augustus — to the beautiful Agrippina."
He gulped the wine, letting some dribble down his chin.
"Come here and sit beside me, my love. Suddenly I feel the need of your touch. Odd! Spring must be stirring my blood. Tonight I believe I will be able to make love."
Amber eyes flecked with green lit her perfect face as Agrippina swayed seductively toward him. She settled on his couch and, letting one hand creep into the folds of his robe, she found the damp, limp, wormlike flesh she sought, manipulating it until his face became flushed, his body writhed, and he moaned on his couch.
He placed the empty goblet aside and reached for her. As his hot breath touched her cheek, she unclasped her gown to reveal a body that seemed to be fashioned of alabaster, with softly sculpted shoulders and full, proud breasts peaked by rosettes the color of ripe plums. His mouth watered at the sight.
Removing the jeweled combs from her hair, she freed it to tumble in red-gold disarray about her. Accustomed to her husband's hesitation, Agrippina caressed her breast and squeezed gently, further expanding the nipple. As she offered herself to him, he took no notice of the white powder released from the hollow band of the pearl ring on her finger to frost the plum.
Still he hesitated, distracted by a rustling behind the rich drapes covering the entrance to the balcony.
Agrippina's whisper held the huskiness of passion. "Only the murmur of a loving spring breeze, my husband. Come. I await your lips. The season has fired my blood as well."
The "loving spring breeze," Nero, felt a pleasing, but disturbing, shiver run through his young body as he watched the ripe and frosted nipple disappear between the moist lips of his stepfather. Looking into his mother's face, he saw the expression in her eyes turn from loving, giving warmth to ice.
Within moments his stepfather's face discolored and contorted in pain. A spasm jerked his body. And then it was over.
Agrippina pried the frozen, blue lips from her breast. Then she readjusted her gown, carefully concealing her instrument of execution.
Nero nodded in satisfaction. Never before had he seen the poison of the Death Pearl served up on such a tempting morsel. He marveled at his mother's imaginative use of her body.
As he was about to creep from the balcony back to his apartments, Nero heard Agrippina address the corpse on the gilded couch in a cordial tone. "Thank you, Passenius Crispus, for departing so quietly and leaving your fortune behind for myself and my son. Never again will we have to suffer the lot of impoverished nobility."
Then, working herself into a suitable state of hysteria, she called for her slaves and sent a runner for a doctor.
As the last light of that spring evening faded, Nero's pulses quickened at the sight of the comet streaking through the heavens. What could it mean? Lying back on his couch, he strummed his lyre to calm his nerves and spoke to himself for reassurance.
"I am once again fatherless, but much the better for it. My best of mothers will see that I am well taken care of."
The strains of Nero's lyre filled the quiet night, as he puzzled over the meaning of the comet's appearance at almost the instant of his stepfather's death.
A few weeks after the comet's appearance, Acte, with her fan of peacock feathers gently stirring the air in practiced rhythm, stationed herself quietly behind the two women on the terrace of Claudius's villa at Baiae. The shimmering lights on the blue-green waters of the bay made it a blinding impossibility for them to look out toward the isle of Ischia, which lay like some great-domed jewel on the water's calm surface.
The silent slave girl savored the soft salt breeze, which carried the pungent scent of bay laurel from the hillside to mingle with the sweetness of the lime blossoms in the garden. Though the scene was all beauty and calm, Acte sensed an undercurrent of strain and agitation between the Empress Messalina and her recently arrived guest, the Lady Agrippina.
Acte's face remained the expressionless mask of the slave as she watched and listened, only occasionally allowing her eyes to travel longingly to the garden where Octavia and her younger brother, Britannicus, entertained Agrippina's bronze-haired son. She wished she could play with them, but for the time being she would have to content herself with gleaning tidbits of gossip from the conversation between the two women.
The Empress Messalina offered her guest a golden goblet.
"Take some wine, Agrippina. I know how awful Rome can be in the summer heat. Did you see Claudius before you left the city?"
Acte saw the faint smile that flickered across the face of the older woman, if three and thirty years could in any way be considered old. Agrippina gratefully accepted the goblet of cool spiced wine from her uncle's wife.
"Yes. And you are both dears to invite me to the villa, Messalina."
Still moving her fan in a slow, steady sweep, Acte contained her surprise as her mistress was unable to do. She knew that the last thing the Lady Messalina would do at this time was invite a guest to stay with her. She had not been the same since the visit to the Sibyl's cave, and now there was talk among the slaves of a new lover right here at the villa.
Noting the slightly surprised look on Messalina's face, Agrippina asked, "Didn't Uncle Claudius tell you I was coming?"
Messalina tried to recover some measure of her composure. "No. It must have slipped his mind, but you know I welcome you all the same." Her smile seemed to tremble at the corners of her mouth as she spoke.
Agrippina returned a stronger, though, Acte thought, equally insincere, smile. "I have a secret for you. Claudius himself will be here shortly. He wanted to surprise you, but I have never been one for surprises."
Messalina allowed a small exclamation to escape her lips, then covered it by ordering, "A glass of water, Acte."
Propping her fan against a marble column, Acte went to the nearby serving table and poured the requested drink, then returned quickly so as not to miss a word or a gesture.
Agrippina stretched out a graceful hand to touch Messalina. "I'm glad I warned you." She laughed softly. "Had your husband arrived unexpectedly as he planned, he might have startled you into heart failure."
At that moment, both Acte and Messalina fixed their gazes on the Lady Agrippina's hand — or more particularly, on the ring on her middle finger. Wrought with finest craftsmanship, it featured two hands of gold seemingly modeled from Agrippina's own, clasping a large blue pearl.
A surge of envy seized Messalina. "Your ring, Agrippina, it's exquisite! I don't believe I've ever seen a pearl of such size or unusual color."
Agrippina relaxed now as she felt herself on safe ground, discussing nothing more important than jewelry.
"I must admit," Messalina continued, "I'd like to own such a piece myself, but Claudius won't allow me such luxuries. I have the imperial jewels, of course. But Claudius says that every piece of gold spent on extravagances for public show takes money from the coffers that should be spent on Rome's armies."
Acte's keen eyes caught the tension in Agrippina's face at first mention of the ring. But then the visitor seemed to bask in the envy of another woman. Not even the searching eyes of the slave girl saw the fine mist of white powder which sifted into Messalina's wine goblet at Agrippina's slight pressure on the great blue pearl as she moved her hand across the table to touch Messalina's.
"Yes. I've heard that my Uncle Claudius is an extremely frugal man." She lied, "I'd sell the ring and donate its price to the legions of Rome, but it has sentimental value. It was a wedding gift from my dear first husband, Domitius, Nero's father, your own mother's brother. Surely you've heard that it is an heirloom handed down from generation to generation in the Ahenobarbus family. Nero's bride will wear it someday."
Still staring at the blue pearl in fascination, Acte realized that this woman was the widow of the man who had been killed, the doctors said, by the comet — her comet. She glanced again at the young bull romping in the garden. Was he the one the Sibyl had promised her?
Then her attention went back to the two women. Messalina spoke in a quasi-sympathetic tone. "Claudius and I were terribly sorry to hear of your husband's death. It was so sudden and mysterious. You must be quite shaken."
"It was a blow." Agrippina dabbed at her eyes to wipe away tears that Acte could not see, for, indeed, they did not exist. "A man in his prime — and I have not even his child to show for the union. But Nero's my whole world now, my little love."
At that moment, the two were interrupted as Octavia came bounding onto the terrace.
Tugging at her mother's hand, she begged, "Please, Mother, can Acte come and play with us? We have an uneven number and Nero says he'll teach us a new game, if Acte can join us."
Acte's heart pounded. Had Nero actually asked for her?
Brushing her daughter's pale hair back in place, Messalina smiled and then turned to Agrippina.
"Do you mind your son playing with slaves? Acte is a favorite of Octavia's and, I'm afraid, quite spoiled. Even Claudius treats her more like one of the family than a common slave."
Agrippina glanced up at the Greek slave for the first time, noting her olive skin, her great eyes and her shining hair. Except for the slave tunic she wore, she might have been some princess from the East. Perhaps Nero had more than a casual interest in the girl. The thought pleased her.
"By all means, let the girl join the others. If the children of the emperor aren't forbidden from associating with a slave, then surely my Nero is not above such company."
Jumping up and down in childish glee, Octavia took Acte's hand and hurried her away from the terrace.
Octavia's usually serious nature fled as she bubbled over with enthusiastic chatter about this newly found cousin.
"Oh, Acte, wait till you meet him. He's so worldly and tells such wicked stories. Britannicus is too young to understand, but I do. He's made a flute out of a reed, and he says he'll play it as soon as you're here to add to his audience."
Excitement and wonder welling up, Acte asked hesitantly, "Did he ask for me personally, or just one more to hear him?" Octavia giggled as she whispered, "He asked for 'the one with hair of night, eyes like deep pools and the body of a woman.'" Acte felt her face flush as they neared the grassy spot where Nero and Britannicus waited. After the two girls took their seats on the ground, Nero climbed upon a marble bench and bowed to his audience in the fashion of a professsional performer, then filled the air with sweet trills from his reed flute. Acte could feel his blue eyes going over every inch of her body, and this as much as his music stirred her blood.
Rising, she raised her arms above her head and swayed to the notes Nero played. As his tune carried her, she whirled until her blue-black hair flew about her like a cloud. She leaped and pirouetted like a young gazelle, her every movement graceful, flowing, sensuous.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rapture's Slave"
Copyright © 1980 Becky Lee Weyrich.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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